About ten days ago, I made the rounds of the think tanks in Washington, DC, discussing current American/Middle East issues with colleagues. From scholars of the far right to the left, no one believed the Annapolis conference would succeed. The level of cynicism regarding the Bush administration's motives and capabilities in the Middle East was depressing. Between the lines was a consistent assessment that, in pressing the case for the conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was out of her depth.
These dim prospects for the Annapolis conference cannot be separated from earlier and more obvious failures of US policy in the greater Middle East, from Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran and Iraq to Lebanon, all intertwined with the fiasco of President Bush's democratization program for the region. In Arab eyes the Annapolis conference--a last-ditch American attempt to deal with an issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that has been neglected for seven years--is intimately connected to these other problematic issue areas. The Annapolis project seeks to display an American commitment to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will ensure broader Arab backing for the US position in Iraq and regarding Iran. So far, the Saudis, Egyptians and others are not impressed.
None of this might matter if Washington had politically capable leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah to work with. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas lacks authority--the latest news of a Fateh assassination plot against PM Ehud Olmert last June in Jericho simply drives home the point--and Olmert's coalition threatens to come apart the closer he comes to Annapolis. There is nothing new here: Abbas has constantly failed to translate his good intentions into a working government, while Olmert brings to Annapolis a dowry of failed strategic judgments, criminal investigations, Winograd commission condemnations and a coalition structured for survival, not peace.
Why don't Bush and Rice perceive this and save themselves the embarrassment? Presumably because their own understanding of Middle East dynamics since 9/11 is so poor. Their energies would be far better applied to backing, encouraging and directing Quartet envoy Tony Blair in his task of building those very Palestinian security, economic and governance institutions that have failed hitherto and whose efficient functioning is a necessary prerequisite to any successful effort at creating a viable Palestinian state. In the long term, that would enhance Arab and Israeli trust in their policies far more than the Annapolis conference, which should be postponed.
We Israelis and Palestinians, in our ongoing failure to end our conflict, should presumably avoid pointing the finger at Washington and blaming it for our troubles. Yet we have long since recognized that our conflict is bigger than the geographical confines of Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. The broader crises in the Middle East--Islamization, Iraq, Iran, the weakness of the Arab state system--have in recent years been exacerbated by American mismanagement. Now Bush and Rice are heading for yet another failure in the region. This one too will only compound existing problems.- Published 22/10/2007 © bitterlemons.org
On one level, the American initiative to convene a peace meeting at Annapolis marks a positive transformation in the American approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But on another, it reflects a continuation of the past.
Until recently, the Bush administration had acquiesced to the unilateral Israeli strategy adopted by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon convinced the American administration that canceling any political efforts and allowing the Israeli military instead the opportunity to pursue unhindered its endeavor to suppress the Palestinians would take care of the problem. The renewed American diplomatic efforts, led by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, thus marks a positive return to a bilateral track that recognizes the Palestinian side as a political partner.
On the other hand, this renewed diplomatic activity also embodies a return to many of the approaches to mediating between the two sides that failed in the past. For one thing, where the US should be representing the international community, once again Washington is instead monopolizing mediation efforts and marginalizing the role of other members of the Quartet, especially Europe and the UN.
Another problem with the current US efforts is that they are exhibiting several of the negative features that characterized the Oslo negotiations and severely weakened chances of their successful implementation. Current negotiations are characterized by secrecy, at least on the Palestinian side, thus precluding the input of the public and official decision-making bodies; they have taken place without agreed-upon and declared terms of reference, again leaving the Palestinian side at the mercy of the imbalance of power between the two sides; and, finally, the makeup of the Palestinian delegation, which was apparently influenced by the US, is more or less the same as that for the Oslo talks.
Meanwhile, in the last meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state disappointed the Palestinian side in three ways. First, Rice appeared to place greater importance on internal Israeli dynamics in her expectations of the language and content of any document to come out of the Annapolis meeting. Second, she brought nothing by way of progress in ending Israel's negative practices in the occupied territories, including a possible relaxation of the Israeli closure regime, an end to settlement expansion or any significant prisoner release. Finally, she also brought no commitment from Israel to a timetable for negotiations.
Thus, Rice left the Palestinian leadership and peace camp in a disadvantaged position vis-a-vis the camp led by Hamas even before the Annapolis meeting has started. This is unfortunate, especially since it is less than two years since Hamas overwhelmingly won Palestinian elections, particularly as a result of the collapse of the peace process and the failure of the peace camp in Palestine to deliver on its promises to the public of a negotiated peaceful end to the conflict.
If the Annapolis meeting is not itself going to mark progress toward a political settlement that includes an end to the occupation, then it should at least mark the resumption of bilateral negotiations. In this case, there has to be a clear and intensive effort to reduce public expectations both in Israel and Palestine and avoid the exaggerated importance currently attached to this meeting.
Furthermore, the Arab world is advised to restrict its representation at Annapolis to those countries that already have relations with Israel, i.e., Egypt and Jordan. Attendance by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Syria would mark a diplomatic victory for Israel. Such a victory cannot come for free. If there is to be no end to settlement expansion, no easing of restrictions on movement in occupied territory and no clear commitment to negotiate an end to the conflict at Annapolis, there is no need to grant Israel any diplomatic victory in this way.- Published 22/10/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The US should submit a DoP
by Oded Eran
It is too late to question the wisdom of floating the idea of a Middle East "meeting". The challenge now is to manage or minimize the potential liabilities and damages that may result from either holding the meeting in Annapolis without ensuring in advance even a limited success, or postponing it sine dei.
For different reasons, four central Israeli ministers have strong reservations about the declaration of principles that is supposed to be the Annapolis meeting's product. Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni prefers a general statement that does not deal with the conflict's core issues. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak strongly doubts the wisdom of negotiations with the current Palestinian leadership. Eli Yishai from Shas threatens to pull out of the government if Jerusalem is mentioned in the DoP. So does Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu.
In any event, a DoP that emerges from bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, bridges between Palestinian demands and Israeli positions on Jerusalem, refugees and borders and specifies a date certain for reaching a full agreement on permanent status seems as remote as ever. Faced with the gaps between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the United States should be concerned with the implications of failure to reach an agreed DoP. A failed meeting in Annapolis, like announcing its abandonment, is an unaffordable luxury. It could destabilize Fateh's control over the West Bank and ignite intensified Palestinian terrorist activity. It could further erode the US position as the major mediator in the Middle East and have wider regional implications for the US as well as for local actors.
The US might, however, consider two other options.
It could further postpone the meeting in Annapolis. During Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit last week to the region, her Egyptian and Jordanian hosts were not averse to the idea. Postponement should be considered only as a measure of last resort. Given the US presidential primaries in February-March 2008 and the accelerated pace of the race to the White House, the postponement might be viewed, with justification, as the abandonment of the meeting idea with all the ramifications explained above.
The more sensible option for the US would be to convene the Annapolis meeting and submit, with the advance knowledge of those convened, an American and/or Quartet statement that addresses two sets of issues: the principles that would guide final status negotiations whenever they take place, and the measures Israel could take in the next few months to bolster the position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Such a declaration could contain general references to an independent, sovereign and demilitarized Palestinian state with its capital in the Greater Jerusalem area or a similar term that does not deal with any aspect of the city itself. Borders would be decided on the basis of the 1967 lines, demographic changes and security considerations. Refugees could be settled in the Palestinian state to be. Israel, upon its own decision, could take in 1948 refugees that suffer severe humanitarian problems. Compensation would be given for property abandoned by the 1948 refugees.
This, or a similarly drafted DoP, grants the Palestinians some new elements such as the mention of Jerusalem in the context of their capital and the mention of 1967 in the context of the borders. It is not in conflict with any of Israel's concerns or with US President George W. Bush's letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of April 2005. The Greater Jerusalem area may be interpreted as extending beyond the current municipal area. In certain sectors like Tulkarm or Qalqilya, the 1967 line has to be the border unless Israel wishes to annex these two Palestinian towns.
The second part of such a DoP would recommend further releases of Palestinian prisoners, the removal of roadblocks and illegal outposts and applying measures to enhance economic activity in the West Bank (and Gaza, if the Abu Mazen government restores its control there).
A third part would deal with issues of process and procedure such as the creation of an Annapolis Forum that might convene twice a year, a monitoring group, etc. Endorsement by the participants of such a DoP at the end of the meeting is the preferred outcome. A set of chair's conclusions, however, is a result that would at least reduce the sense of despair and prevent the forces of rejection in the Middle East from claiming another US defeat and maintaining that the only way to "solve" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the use of terror and violence.
Such a result might make it possible to manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until January 2009, when the new US president is sworn-in.- Published 22/10/2007 bitterlemons.org
Oded Eran was head of the negotiations team with the Palestinians until the Camp David Summit, 2000.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
A minimum strategic goal
by Daoud Kuttab
In all previous attempts at negotiations with Israel, Palestinians have never made any real breakthrough. Progress has only been made on procedural or superficial issues, even if expectations were always raised unreasonably high, which in turn created exaggerated hopes for the peace process. This has been the case since the Madrid peace conference and was true of the Oslo process. Throughout, the Palestinian position was in permanent retreat and concessions were offered Israel at no cost.
What is true of the past holds true for the present. When US President George W. Bush first announced his intention to convene an international meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian side was concerned about the lack of any clear agenda for the meeting, as well as the lack of substance and the absence of a list of invitees. The Palestinian side consequently insisted that the meeting should be preceded by agreement between the Palestinian and Israeli sides regarding how and when to tackle final status issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees.
Israel resisted this and insisted instead that nothing but a general declaration of principles could come from the meeting--now set to take place in Annapolis some time in late November--and that there could be no talk of specific content or any timetable. Slowly, but irresistibly, the Palestinian position changed. Today, Palestinian officials speak of agreement at the meeting on a general framework that will then be followed by negotiations on final status issues to be concluded no later than six months after the meeting. Indeed, beyond the talk of a six-month timetable, the Palestinian position has become the Israeli one, something that is glossed over with optimistic announcements about that point in the future after the Annapolis meeting.
It seems we have not learned our lessons.
What, after all, is the cause of this optimism? What has changed that has put the Palestinian side in a better position now than it was seven or 17 years ago? And if there is nothing that has changed for the better in our case, is it that Palestinian negotiators believe that the US or Israel are now, for their own internal reasons, ready to sign an agreement that respects Palestinian rights and demands?
Those who believe the time is ripe for Palestinians to conclude an agreement with Israel are deluded. On the ground, the Palestinian position is at its weakest. There is political as well as geographical division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Social and economic conditions are on the verge of collapse, the Israeli grip on the West Bank and Jerusalem is stronger and more draconian than ever while Arab and international support for Palestinians is dwindling. In view of that, how can Palestinians change the balance of power and squeeze anything successful from negotiations with Israel?
Some argue that the US administration has finally recognized the compelling necessity of resolving the Palestinian question. But this would be an enormous assumption. The current US administration is suffering severe domestic criticism over its war in Iraq and is stumbling through its remaining months in power. Furthermore, nothing indicates that the Bush administration's unwavering support of Israel has changed. The White House may have recognized that it needs to reinvigorate the Palestinian-Israeli political process. It is clear, however, that it is neither willing nor capable of imposing a settlement, something Arab countries and Palestinians have long looked for. In truth, the Arab peace initiative would have constituted a shorter and easier path to achieve a political settlement. But one of the American aims in holding the Annapolis meeting is exactly to consign this initiative to the dustbin.
Some, meanwhile, see in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert someone willing to make unprecedented progress toward a just settlement. But Olmert is not only pressing full steam ahead with the construction of his Apartheid wall in the West Bank, he is also struggling, not only with the opposition but with his own party and his partners in the ruling coalition, to retain his tenuous hold on power. To survive, he might do well to resuscitate a negotiations process to distract his detractors, but is he really going to reach an agreement that meets Palestinian demands? And would he be able to push such an agreement through? Of course not. He has neither the power, the vision nor the intellect.
This is anything but a good time to pursue a final agreement with Israel, and the Palestinian side should not peddle false hope. Since negotiators have agreed to attend the Annapolis meeting unconditionally they should face the Palestinian people honestly and say that any negotiations now are undertaken on Israeli premises, i.e., that there can be no return to the 1967 borders, there can be no Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and there can be no return of refugees. Should Palestinians accept these terms, agreement is at hand. If not, we will see the start of yet another cycle of negotiations, propelling negotiators around the globe and onto endless satellite TV discussion programs.
For 15 years Palestinians have been pursuing the mirage of a negotiations process. Let us not this time kid ourselves into thinking it is any cause for optimism.- Published 8/10/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian columnist and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah. Currently, he is a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University in the United States.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.